Party-drug use among students: Why (not) everyone is doing it

Party-drug use among students: Why (not) everyone is doing it

Media reports suggest that party-drug use is becoming increasingly normal among young adults. Is this true for students? And what characterizes students who start and continue to use party-drugs?

"All teenagers are saying 'yes' to MDMA" – Ronnie Flex informs us by radio. Media reports also suggest that hard drugs are being used increasingly by young adults, including the highly educated. They are referred to as agenda hedonists: people who work or study hard during the week and then unwind during the weekend using (illegal) party-drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, GHB, or 4-fluoramphetamine. Indeed, over half of people between 18 and 35 who frequently visit clubs or festivals have used ecstasy at least once in their lives (Trimbos, 2016). Thus, it seems that that party-drug use is becoming an increasingly normal thing to do among young people. Since most students are young adults with an active nightlife, this raises the question whether the majority of students are doing party-drugs as well: Are all students really "saying 'yes' to MDMA"?

Characteristrics of users
Three years ago, we started investigating this, to us, fascinating trend. Talking to students, we were surprised by the variety of their responses. Whereas some students said "Interesting! I’d say most students use party-drugs every once in a while", others responded with "What are party-drugs? Are people really doing that?". We therefore wanted to know more about student party-drug use and background characteristics. Additionally, we were interested in what characterizes students who may try an ecstasy pill just once and others who use party-drugs on a regular basis. In other words, could we distinguish non-users from users, and occasional from regular users on basis of personality characteristics and their social environment?

Pro-party-drug social environment
446 students from Leiden University participated in our anonymous online questionnaire study. The results on the prevalence of party-drugs were fortunately not shocking in comparison with the figures at the national level: 22.9% had tried at least one form of party-drug, at least once in their lives. This prevalence seems low compared to the Trimbos study and other Dutch student samples (De Hoogh & De Jong, 2014; Universiteitskrant Groningen, 2014). Interestingly, when looking at non-users vs. users, we found that party-drug users were more extravert and impulsive, and less conscientious and neurotic than non-users. However, when we entered these personality factors into the analysis together with social norms, the effects of personality disappeared. This suggests that personality affects party-drug use only indirectly, through a pro-party-drug social environment. Being extravert and impulsive may place students in social environments in which others use party-drugs, and this in turn could contribute to initiation of party-drug use. Looking at occasional vs. regular party-drug users, the only differences we found were again related to these same social norms. Regular users reported that their friends were (also) positive about party-drugs, and that many of their friends also used party-drugs. These students also reported a low desire to comply with their parents’ wishes regarding party-drug use. Notably, there were no differences in personality between low frequent and regular user groups.

Social norms
Our findings suggest that not all students seem to be saying 'yes' to MDMA. Furthermore, the results point towards the important role of social norms in the initiation as well as the continuation of party-drug use, beyond factors related to personality. Of course, as this was a correlational study, we cannot determine what causes what. Perhaps lenient social norms and having a pro-party-drug social environment increase the chance of an individual starting and continuing to use party-drugs. However, the reverse is also possible: party-drug users may convince themselves that 'everyone is doing it', as a means of justifying their own substance use.

Either way, one conclusion seems justified: asking someone what their social environment thinks of party-drug use, and how many people in their social environment use party-drugs, can tell you something about the likelihood that individuals themselves use party-drugs (whether occasionally or regularly). Thus, thinking back to Ronnie Flex’s song, we may well wonder whether claiming that a lot of people are doing party-drugs actually says most about the person making the claim.